Gamers, as much as anyone else, have a fear of death. The happy little arcade makers and dreamers of the 80s threw that fear into us at the very beginning, mainly as a convenient way to keep us chucking quarters into the machines. It was only later, once those games reached our living rooms, that we realized the real value of all those lost lives. Instead of using death in their games as a way to get more money, developers were quickly forced to use it to make games last longer…so they could get more money. Once parents were going to department stores and plunking down 50 or 60 bucks for the latest Mega Man or Contra, they expected something that would keep their kids occupied, something with the newly-minted term “replay value”.
Reaching the end of a game became a badge of honor, instead of a very real impossibility. Skirting death meant something, and being able to prove that, yes, you had seen the ending of Ninja Gaiden, was something that earned a an immense amount of respect on the playground.
Now we have an entirely new fear of in-game death, mainly because we’ve entirely ignored it. Why deal with wasting a continue (or worse yet, having to start over at the very beginning of the game) when you can just spam the quicksave key to oblivion, or litter your game with checkpoints like they’re sprinkles in the hands of an epileptic Dairy Queen manager? Instead of being forced to avoid death by playing by the rules of the game, we got comfortable with avoiding it outside of the screen, reloading our saves a few thousand times, and moving on.
That, in a probably-too-long three paragraph nutshell, is why I absolutely LOVE Shiren the Wanderer.
Unlike the tutorial-happy, lens-flare obsessed games vomited at us by the local GameStop every other week, Shiren keeps it simple, and doesn’t give a damn whether you make it to the end credits. Even though Shiren is one of the more accessible roguelikes (and one of the few that made it to the SNES), all that means is that you’ll be able to recognize what a sword looks like without consulting the world’s longest ASCII guidebook.
As far as the actual difficulty goes…you’ll die when you play Shiren. A lot. And it’s a near-guarantee that you’ll never see the same death twice, or at least not for a very, very long time. It took me two years of playing the game before I got killed by being turned into a rice ball and eaten. That’s not in-game years, mind you, but two actual, real-world years. And that same variety applies to the entire game. Although you’ll play through the same themed areas in the same order, the game changes each and every time you die, and you’re forced to re-plot your strategy all over again. Picture a giant game of chess, except the board changes every time you put down the pieces, and most of those pieces want to eat you and/or rob you blind.
That’s the true delight, and evil, of Shiren. You’ll get halfway through the game, reach the next town two steps away from starving, and just barely make it to the next floor…only to immediately get clobbered by a minotaur. And then you’ll sigh, hang your head, and do it all over again. The genius of this game isn’t just that it makes you value every step, it’s that it makes death fun. Even though you lose everything, (yes kids, everything…your items, your xp, all of it. Still wanna play?) it’s just another chance to attack the maze all over again. Maybe you’ll find a new weapon this time! (highly probable). Maybe you’ll make it a bit farther! (less likely). Maybe you’ll finally beat it! (AHAHAHHAHAno.)
I realize I haven’t talked about the story yet, and that’s because there’s really not much to speak of. There’s a mountain with a golden condor on it, and you need to get to the condor, because there’s evil in a village. Or something. It’s nice, but it’s really an excuse to fill the back of the box, not something that’s going to have you picking up the nearest Emerson novel for comparison.
The setting, however…that’s a different story. It’s the setting that really makes Shiren stand out from its peers, most of which are usually filled with knights, or elves, or “MY DRAGON WIZARD KILLED YOUR GOBLIN ARMY FOR +5 CHARISMAXPMAGIC.” Instead of pulling from the medieval timeline, a setting which has been beaten to death by this point, Shiren draws inspiration from a far less-utilized source: Feudal Japan. You’ll be fighting tengus and monster radishes, not skeletons and slimes, and you’ll find yourself at shrines and temples instead of castles and magic fountains. Everything about the game, from the items to the music to the sprites, makes you feel like a wandering ronin in old Nippon. It’s yet another thing game developers these days could do better, rather than churning out a hundred billion space marine FPS’ and calling it a day.
In short, Shiren the Wanderer has something more games today could use: humility, originality, and character. Pick up a copy, grab a katana, and get ready to die again and again…and love it.